May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The documentary film, “The Human Tower,” follows three manifestations of human tower festivals around the world — in Spain, Chile and India.
These events involve crowds of people forming multi-level towers by climbing up on one another in competitions and performances
The film, co-directed by Ram Devineni and Cano Rojas, began when Devineni invited Rojas to join him in the research for the project.
Rojas had lived in Barcelona for a year at one point and was already familiar with the phenomenon. In Spain, the towers are an endeavor by the Catalan culture, from northern Spain, and Rojas said that their towers are very professionally done in comparison to others.
“It’s very well-done, very professional, very rigid. They never fall,” he said. “In India, it’s very messy, very chaotic, very organic. It’s like a breathing thing. And then the Chilean one is shy, is full of passion, it’s way below the other two in terms of accomplishment and size.”
In Spain, human towers are a middle-class enthusiasm, and the people involved have the resources and technology to make it a year-round and slick effort. The Indian version is enacted annually by members of the lower caste, who train intensively for two months prior to the event.
“These guys that are ignored by society all year round, for one day a year, they become celebrities, rock stars,” Rojas said, “and that’s something that’s really beautiful to see, how much pride they’ve put in this thing and how much they work to kick ass on this one day. The spectacularity of India is much more entertaining, because you have a huge crowd and it’s much more messy and the colors are just beautiful.”
“Spain is like another level. They have maps of each tower, they do transversal cuts so you can see each person in the base and on each floor. Their program of training in Spain is amazing. It’s a very well-calculated effort, the position of the people, the size of the people that go in each place, there’s no randomness at all in the Spanish one.”
Because of this, the towers created in Spain tend to be more complicated and imposing than those elsewhere.
They also turn it into a communal effort, with trainings set up as family events that include meals and involving all family members, not just those in the tower.
The Chilean effort is still too new to challenge the Spanish ones. Their towers are smaller, but Rojas said the story about building a community that is contained in their efforts is special and engaging.
Human towers aren’t confined to the three locations covered in the film. Rojas points to Italy and China as sites of other efforts.
“We shot the Italian ones for a tiny bit,” he said. “It’s only two levels and they move around and dance. “
Any others in the world are actually off-shoots of the Catalan tradition, who see spreading the tower events as a show of pride in their culture.
“It’s random guys who moved to a town in the middle of nowhere and they started doing this thing,” said Rojas. “Through the team in Spain, they do it in this country and that country. Even in the U.S., there are a couple of people who are trying to start it on the West Coast that are actually part of the team we shot.”
Rojas participated once in a human tower, a small one of four people, that brought him a better understanding of the actual emotions involved.
“Even though it was a tiny tower, the amount of concentration and pressure you have in your head, knowing that you have two kids above you who are depending on your equilibrium and concentration, it’s fascinating,” he said. “It brings you to another level.”
A tower isn’t a collection of individuals piling up on each other, but a super-organism in which the slightest aspect of each part affects all the other parts. Each part is equally important.
“You feel responsible,” said Rojas. “You can’t look to the side, you have to keep pushing and pressing and stay super focused.”
It’s this inherent egalitarianism that holds much of the fascination for Rojas, who sees the human towers as a ground-breaking sport that does not discriminate or exclude.
“It’s like the future of sports,” said Rojas. “It’s an amazing activity where any body of any size or any age can compete on the same team, which is crazy to think about. We had people like 65 years old on the base, we had kids like 6 years old on the top, we had women, we had men, we had the short little stubby guy, we had the long skinny guy, all sizes and all shapes.”
Tower building also is community-building and strengthening, and Rojas thinks all this explains its growing popularity among certain populations — this is not an unattainable, exclusive goal, but just a part of ordinary lives.
“These people are crazy about building towers,” he said. “All they do all day is think about towers.
“You go to their house and all they have is pictures of towers on the walls all over, and they speak tower and breathe tower. It’s amazing.”
“You have this physical activity, you have an artistic approach and you have the every day life. They date people from the team, they marry people from the team. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.”
May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
In depicting a life behind the Iron Curtain, most films have been more than capable of showing you what it was like, but sometimes less at having you feel it. With “Barbara,” director Christian Petzold is able to weave the sinister grays of East Germany around an intimate drama.
Barbara (Nina Hoss) is a doctor, who has been sent from Berlin to a hospital in the East German boondocks after requesting a visa. Routinely watched, searched and investigated, Barbara approaches her new assignment coldly, partly out of humiliation, partly out of suspicion and partly because of her secret plan to escape the country.
That plan is under the guidance of her lover, who she plans to join in West Germany and with whom she has a series of clandestine meetings to pass the tools of her escape, along with gifts and romance.
That set-up is routine — there are good guys and bad guys — but the lesson of “Barbara” is that a corrupt state winds its way around the citizens and forces a gray pall on everyone, to the point that there may be no black and white.
Such is the case with the chief surgeon at the hospital, Dr. Reiser (Ronald Zehrfeld), a charming and caring doctor, who has been charged by the Stasi with feeding it information about Barbara. Reiser isn’t keen to do the work, nor to hide it from her, and so he walks a tightrope of doing his duty, while still remaining true to his soul in his relationship with Barbara.
As the reality of the police state unfolds for Barbara, it also reveals itself to the film’s audience in a claustrophobic way that demands distrust for well-meaning characters and even sympathy for the possible villains.
As we traverse this world in Barbara’s shoes, the nightmare of knowing where no one stands, and who might stand behind them on a daily and casual basis, becomes all too real, even mundane. Anyone may be a spy, and you may like them, anyhow.
In the end, “Barbara” is a story of sacrifice and the acknowledgment that privilege is not just the circumstance of the moneyed classes in free states, but among the educated, radical and brave in police states, and compassion is the weapon they are required to brandish.
May 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
There were very many things lost in cinema once sound became the standard. The constant theatrical over-playing, for one. The spoken word gave film to the opportunity to very speedily express more subtle emotions and concepts without the over-acting. Because of this, the demeanor of silent films is frozen in time — the abrupt halt meant there was no natural evolution.
Sound, meanwhile, allowed filmmakers to not have to work so hard to get things across — they could just be stated outright — and this certainly lead to a visual deterioration of film, in which what you saw was no longer required to tell the story so much as pretty it up. There are of course notable exceptions of masters at the craft, but your average movie — and, of course, television show — needed sound because as the ordinary filmmaker became less required to express complexity in purely visual terms, the ordinary filmmaker became less capable of doing so.
Surely, as film and storytelling in public spaces became more complex, silence would not have been a hindrance, but rather something that matched the needs of its medium. Silence, at the very least, had the potential for expressing what dialogue couldn’t — the nether regions of emotion, the gray areas that are left up to us, the audience, to figure out.
We’ll never know for certain, but every once in awhile a modern filmmaker comes along to explore the idea. In its most popular manifestation, “The Artist” managed to infuse sentimentality and nostalgia with honest sadness and joy that aren’t ever found in those two states.
With “Blancanieves,” the honesty continues and the depth burrows further down, giving hope that silent film might return as a prominent filmmaking form.
There’s nothing about the quick description of this Spanish-made film that makes it sound like anything other than an oddity — a black and white silent film that takes the story of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and recasts it in the world of bullfighting.
In the film, Carmen (Macarena García and Sofía Oria) is the daughter of a famous bullfighter (Daniel Giménez Cacho), whose career is ended on the night of her tragic birth. Under the iron hand of her evil stepmother (Maribel Verdú), Carmen’s life unfolds much like Snow White’s traditionally has, except this is 1920s Seville and her fate is wrapped up in the bull-fighting ring.
What director Pablo Berger offers is a fairy tale that dives harshly into emotional truths and, by turning its back on dialogue, and therefore pedantic story particulars, creates a raw examination of loss and reclamation. In this manner, the film gets to the root of what fairy tales are supposed to be — representations of our very real fears and misfortune, and a reflection of the very real danger we must watch out for.
And Carmen’s battles against these dangers are made more intense, more dark, more poetic by the silence, and it allows us to experience what she does more crisply — we’re living that life along with her, her sadness is ours and her situation is emotionally familiar territory. Film shows tiny signs lately of coming full circle and possibly, finally, offering modern subtleties and a primal connection with the audience in regard to what goes on inside the characters by just cutting out the audio.
“Blancanieves” is an indication of what can be in careful hands and a huge step forward for that artistic path.
March 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment
As triumph over tragedy movies go, “Rust and Bone” earns its high marks by turning its back on the typical emotional manipulation wrought in the genre and presenting the bare bones reality. But selling it purely as that is a risk, since the parts of the film add up to much more by actually pretending to be much less.
Yes, it is about two damaged souls — through the course of the film, we see this psychologically and physically — but rather than being about the quick fix of love as a transcendent emotion, we instead see it as part of the slow process in transformation. Love is but one component in turning your life around — perhaps the most fulfilling one, but change cannot rest on the shoulders of a single circumstance.
The film centers in on a chance encounter between Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) at a nightclub, where Ali is set-up as Stéphanie’s protector and then antagonist. Following a tragedy that leaves Stéphanie disabled, the two reconnect, largely out of Stéphanie’s desperation to break out of her loneliness and isolation following her accident.
Ali is a soul with no path, and that means his young son, sister, and brother-in-law are all left as the collateral damage of his aimlessness. He particularly teeters on the razor’s edge of resistance with his son, and is in consistent danger of falling off with a force that can only break the kid, whether it’s one of love or bitterness.
While Stéphanie embraces the challenges inherent in her path, it takes Ali longer to lumber along his. The film reveals little of the specific issues of either character, and it’s in the Buddhist style meditation of all things passing and the body being in the moment and moving forward that the film excels. Sure, the characters are stricken by their histories, but that is not what is important and, therefore, nothing the film belabors. It’s their present, and its relationship to their future, that we can grab onto.
“Rust and Bone” is a constantly changing film — one moment its a movie about defying the odds, the next it’s a gritty film about illegal fights and betting and soon enough, it’s about an erotic romance. All these parts come together well as the constantly changing reality of a life’s journey, even hinting that there are many more changes beyond the final frame that we will never know.
February 15, 2013 § 1 Comment
Comedian Louis CK once described marriage as the sort of situation, where, in the best case scenario, one of you is going to die. In fact, every relationship on any level is exactly that. They all end the same. One of you is going to die — it’s the universal constant, the one true thing about reality.
Michael Haneke’s film “Amour,” which opens at tonight Images Cinema in Williamstown, takes this notion to an almost documentarian level. The story is simple. An older married couple get through life the best they can when the wife falls ill and the husband must care for her. Slowly, the wife slips closer to death.
“Amour” is the type of film that makes apparent the situations that the majority of movies do not usually portray — ordinary death. Movies are most at ease with spectacular death, often anonymous, the kind that litter action, horror and science fiction spectacles these days. When it comes to ordinary people on the road to death, movies tend to soften the blow as much as possible through sentiment, which is usually delivered with a spoonful of empowerment
“Amour,” on the other hand, is most upsetting in that there is nothing extraordinary about the experience of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). at all. At least 50 percent of us are going to face our own version of their situation, and so the most depressing part of the film is the point where you see yourself, and that’s after the already depressing point where you’ve recognized your parents.
It also doesn’t help that Haneke presents dying as something that is hard to do with dignity. Part of that comes from being kept alive — some of the steps taken to maintain a person in that situation are, frankly, humiliating. Dying is personal, and the well-meaning intrusions of the medical community and family are breaches in that wall.
And there is nothing pretty or romantic about a person whose body is dying. It’s hard to go through, it’s hard to envision yourself as you are in that situation and it’s mortifying to be the loved one witnessing. Haneke skillfully captures these commonalities.
And, yet, there is something very ungloomy about “Amour.”
Maybe it’s because even though the situation that Georges and Anne find themselves in is obviously sad, it’s also one that they work their way through just like so many of us must.
Their situation is a perfectly normal one, it’s a process that binds us.
Equally, the portrayal of love — the real relationship between two humans who choose to be together for as long as their bodies inhabit this planet — goes beyond romantic notions and sentimentality, and into a realm of connection and selflessness that transcends what the movies often tell us about love.
“Amour” is hard going. It’s difficult to recommend it to anyone, though there are rewards to viewing it.
Technically, it is beautifully filmed and acted, and its honesty as a harsh slice of life is unparalleled.
The question you have to ask yourself before you watch it, though, is if this clear-headed, sober account of the real meaning of love and death is one that you need to see at all. If you decide you do, there will be rewards, though very complicated ones.
February 15, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Local politics is of national concern — that’s one of the lessons from Scott Thurman’s documentary covering the attack on evolution by the Texas Board of Education.
The film began as Thurman’s graduate thesis and eventually expanded to focus on the state board of education debate on science standards. Thurman attended board of education meetings and turned his lens toward a Republican Christian dentist who was also chairman of the board, Don McLeroy. McLeroy seemed to spearhead the efforts to call into question the veracity of evolution as a valid scientific fact in the school text books.
“The biggest complaint here was that Don wanted to put his religious beliefs in the public schools, and the problem with that is that public schools are paid for by all of our money,” said Thurman. “It shouldn’t be used to promote or denigrate one religion over another, so he’s walking on a thin rope in people’s minds for that reason.”
Texas is such a large market for the text book industry that its standards often dictate information contained in text books published for the entire country.
“I’d read about what Don was doing and I didn’t like what I’d read,” Thurman said. “It was part of my interest in focusing on him from the beginning, more to catch this guy showing how his evolution arguments were really religious arguments in disguise. I think there’s more of a sincere attempt to be scientific on Don’s part, but it’s put in a new light when you see it from the perspective of his personal life.”
McLeroy is shown as the type of guy who lectures patients in his dentist chair about evolutionists, and shares misinformation on the subject with the Sunday school class he teaches — all with friendly laugh and smile. Thurman says some people on the right oppose bringing a person’s religious convictions into the argument, but he thinks it’s mandatory to the issue.
“I think with political figures, you need to shed light on them, we need to know who they are and what they believe personally if those personal beliefs make scientific claims,” he said. “I think those claims need to be subject to the same kind of debate and critical review as scientific theories.”
For Thurman, the real controversy became obvious following the evolution debate, when the board began bickering over the social studies and history curriculum, with a transparent agenda to remove many liberal-leaning facts and highlight multiple conservative ones.
“It put the science deliberations in a whole new light,” Thurman said, “when you see some of the types of arguments, and then the process of including certain words and using particular language certain ways that came out of the creation-evolution debate. That formulated into a strategy in the social studies and history. The motive is more clear.”
The best weapon against such actions, Thurman says, turned out to be enlisting the help of moderate Christians and Republicans, such as Lubbock board member Bob Craig, who is shown in the film trying to combat some of the far right efforts.
“He did challenge them and stepped up and said, look, we are listening to experts and they’re saying this is creationist disguised language, strengths and weaknesses, and let’s move on,” Thurman said.
Thurman feels that, despite the obvious agenda, most of the board members, including those on the far right, were fairly sincere in their actions, though he also points to the political possibilities that anyone would have felt in that situation.
“For a lot of members, it was a pride in their district, like I’m standing up for what these people in my district are telling me,” he said. “And more importantly, that’s going to get them re-elected.”
“People see Texas politics in general — or at least we here in Texas seem to think that it’s a stepping stone for national government.
People especially see the state board of education as a stepping stone for other political office, the House, usually, sometimes even the senate or higher. State board of education is really an entry point, a lower form of government that a lot of people don’t really pay attention to.”
The key in Texas, Thurman says, is not to focus on getting Democrats elected, but again to enlist the help of moderate Republicans, putting them in the forefront and helping them win primaries.
“People aren’t going to vote for the Democrat because they don’t even care,” he said. “It’s a ‘D’ by their name. When they fill out their ballot, they’ll just say give me all Republicans, not really knowing how extreme they are or how opposed they would be to some of the views held by these state board of education members.”
The situation has changed after the last election, with an equal 5-5-5 split of moderates, liberals, and far right.
Less in the way of politics guides the board’s decisions as they are about to start reviewing books. Also, the state senate changed the rules of that process, downgrading the required compliance to Texas standards from 100 percent to 50 percent, offering much more leeway for publishers and stripping the broad power of the board itself.
Thurman sees it as a cautionary tale worth keeping in our collective memory, one that highlights the clash of two specific world views that are incompatible, especially when they spill out into the realm of governance.
“One sees the world in terms of absolutes and the other sees it in terms of probability,” said Thurman. “Gravity is a probability, right? We’re going to drop this ball and it’s going to fall and there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to happen again, because we’ve tested it, done it over and over. When you see it in terms of absolutes, something like science is hard to understand.”
Thurman stresses that he and McLeroy’s relationship was never, and is still not, touched by any animosity. They may stand on different sides of the issue, but McLeroy is a familiar type for Thurman, a Texas native, and a lifetime in that state has taught him to function happily with political and religious opposites.
“I can really relate to Don quite a bit,” Thurman said. “I’ve got family members, and I grew up in the same kind of religious philosophy, so I deeply respect him on a personal level and can sit at the dinner table with him and chat about everything, from politics to other things, and be okay with it, and not have a personal enemy.”
Thurman’s confident that his portrayal of McLeroy is evenhanded and points to the number of emails he gets in support of McLeroy, thanking him for what he is shown doing in Thurman’s film, as proof. These people see McLeroy as the hero of the film.
Others who write Thurman, of course, are not so supportive of McLeroy’s efforts, including religious moderates who want to make sure that people know McLeroy’s views do not represent their own.
The irony for Thurman is that the process of the board itself illustrated exactly what McLeroy was attempting to downgrade as a fact of the universe — natural selection.
“I was looking at this political body, this creature that’s active, and it’s fighting internally for the winner,” he said. “There’s this struggle. Everything to me, I was relating to evolution. I was looking at this board and saw it more as an anthropological study.”
“In fact, jokingly towards the end, when we were looking at narration, we thought David Attenborough would be a perfect commentator to say, ‘Look at these board members.’”
January 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Isabelle Huppert stars as three women in one tale that seems simple, but only deceptively so, in “In Another Country,” a new film by South Korean director Hong Sang-soo.
“In Another Country” opens tonight for a four-night run at the Little Cinema at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield.
In a series of three vignettes, Huppert appears as a French tourist in Korea named Anne — in one, Anne is a film director; in another, the wife of an executive meeting her lover, and, in the final segment, a divorced woman traveling with an older Korean woman in order to get her mind off her life.
In each of the segments, Huppert meets many of the same characters — most importantly a film director, who serves as a love interest, and a simple, goofy lifeguard at a beach. Some of the situations of each segment repeat in the others, some are rearranged, sometimes conversations happen in each, sometimes they will appear as a variation. At center is Huppert’s alienation as she tries to navigate not just Korean culture, but the mindset of Korean males and their attitude toward foreign women.
The key to the film, though, is not Huppert at all, but the young girl (Jung Yumi) who manages the lodgings, and interacts with Huppert’s character at various points. In the beginning of the film, she talks to her mother about a dire family issue, and then takes to her note pad to begin a movie script to take her mind off her problems. At the beginning of the film, you have no idea where it is going, and so filed away, you become interested in the story of Anne. But with each iteration of Anne as a new character with a new motivation, the young girl appears to begin writing her new draft, and it’s important to remember that this is a cast of characters seen through the eyes of a young, rather naive girl.
And so this is not the story of a French woman visiting Korea, but, rather, the story of a young Korean woman bringing a French tourist into her everyday backdrop, mixing and weaving reality with her own impressions of the the world and life around her. As depicted by the lifeguard and even herself, the locals are simple and awkward.
Film people are conniving, dark, exciting. French women are fancy, complicated. And all these characters are the girl’s to mix and match, rearrange, reconfigure, control. In a life where she doesn’t seem to have much say of the family strife, she’s more than capable of fabricating playthings in order for her to come to terms with darkness and conflict, and look at her own surroundings with a critical eye, and even investigating notions of love, romance and sex.
In this way, “In Another Country” is less about an outsider, and their relationship with an insular world, than an insider who is bringing outside influences in as a measure against the insular world. It’s a dry, though alluring work, low-key and sometimes feeling amateurish.
But still its multi-levels provide fascinating depths to the multiple worlds it portrays, and the young mind it mirrors in the narration.
January 19, 2013 § Leave a Comment
A new documentary film focusing on the Philadelphia jail system reveals harsh truths about public safety everywhere, and what really needs to be done to find solutions for what ails the institution.
The movie is a direct result of director Matt Pillischer’s present working with his past. Currently a lawyer in Philadelphia, he attended Bennington College and studied art with a focus on film — his film playing at Images is a double thrill for him since that’s where he used to go see movies all the time.
“Broken On All Sides” resulted from an effort to create a public education piece about prison overcrowding.
“I worked on my firm’s last lawsuit against the city,” Pillischer said, “and went in and interviewed prisoners and saw some of the conditions first-hand. That’s actually how I started the movie.”
He first created a short version that focused on overcrowding, and continued work on it to expand it into the current movie.
“Strangely enough, law school lead me back to filmmaking,” said Pillischer. “I love what I’m doing right now. It’s a very unique combination of all my interests and skills, and I’m hoping I can continue doing this public education/advocacy through storytelling and filmmaking. That’s where I’m hoping to continue going. “
As captured in the film by Pillischer, the system of incarceration as we currently practice it is one of a replacement for the social programs that are routinely dismissed by conservatives. The money is going to be spent because the problem is not going away, with poverty and crime becoming a government expenditure that’s impossible to dismiss from the spreadsheets — it’s more about the form that spending takes.
“We could have instead had an increased war on poverty, but instead, the war on poverty was ended and the war on drugs was started to deal with the same problems, the same communities,” Pillischer said.
“If you’re really interested in public safety and dealing with crime, the current system actually creates more crime, and creates a permanent second class citizenship, particularly for people of color, that are permanently cut out of the legal economy.”
Pillischer cites affordable housing, increased education efforts, better healthcare, job training, drug treatment programs and mental health programs as all proven initiatives that bring down crime and incarceration rates, but have been politically decimated as options. It adds up to a societal manifestation of blaming the victim.
“We hear personal responsibility, it’s a catch phrase, and it moves away from societal responsibility,” he said. “If we can convince society that poor people are that way because of their own failings, and not necessarily because of certain institutions in society, then that takes the blame or the responsibility off society at large, the government and the majority of people, to even care about the problem. It makes us say that those people deserve to be in jail because it was their choice to not get a good education and instead turn to a life of crime.”
Pillischer draws a straight line to laws during slavery and the Jim Crow era that put limits on the African American population and then held them responsible for the results of those limits. Though shifted on paper to the criminal population, these attitudes affect African American communities more than any other, thanks to inequality in targeting and sentencing. The white population use drugs statistically the same as the black one, but the black population is victim of more vigorous law enforcement efforts.
“If you control for joblessness, compare jobless white men to jobless black men, the differentiating rates of violent crimes disappears,” said Pillischer. “We know that people are put into certain circumstances where they are chronically jobless. That leads to violence and has nothing to do with the color of their skin or their race.”
“I don’t think most people understand that or know that. Independent media and activists need to be mindful of creating a narrative that is telling the truth and trying to hammer it across these people’s heads that some of the things you believe just aren’t true. Even things like violent crime in poor communities.”
Pillischer says that the result of this is a bigger crime rate and less public safety. What is often missed in the debate is the way incarcerated felons are transformed into permanent ones who, through entirely legal efforts, are stripped of their ability to just get by in life. No opportunities breed desperation, desperation breeds crime. Punishment breeds more crime. The simple fact is that even hard-liners on crime, even racists, will benefit from humane prison reform.
“If we can reduce the amount of people in prisons, if we can start to talk more humanely and compassionately about people who go to prison and are branded with criminal records for the rest of their lives, it actually helps all of us,” Pillischer said. “You don’t want people pushed out of mainstream society and marginalized to the point that they can’t survive in a legal way. That is just going to perpetuate crime, because they have to figure out some way to make money in this society, especially as social service programs and social safety nets are being cut, cut, cut.”
“People have less access to welfare, public benefits, job training, education, and if on top of that employers are legally allowed to discriminate against them because of their criminal record, if the government is allowed to not give them certain grants for school, if the government prevents them from getting certain licenses like becoming a barber or bus driver, things like that, because of a criminal record, this just forces them into the illegal economy. That’s the way we create more crime. “
Pillischer says that though there are very definite solutions to many of these problems, he can’t actually point to many legislative examples of enacting them. One he does cite is the recent California reform of the three strikes law.
“In some cases you had people going to prison for life for their third offense, which might be stealing a videotape from a K-Mart or really ridiculous things, the possession of a joint of marijuana. California modified the three strikes law and I think that’s a great example of how we could start to change sentencing laws.”
Pillischer also points to the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado as positive moves forward as well. The ideal, he said, would be for full legalization and a new strategy treating drugs as a public health problem, but these are small steps. The point is that the standard methods have not lessened drug use and the time has come to try something different, something that would not only cope with the drug problem, but the crime and incarceration problem as well.
“We should be shifting to look at more of a restorative justice approach, rather than a law enforcement, criminal justice approach,” Pillischer said, “which means we need to look at the harm that it’s done in the community when a crime has been committed, and try and right those wrongs, instead of just the state punishing the actor.”
Pillischer points to the idea of drug courts and mental health courts, which some programs are trying to introduce in the United States, and which have be appearing in Africa. These would divert the appropriate issues to savvier courts and allow the criminal courts to better handle crime sentencing.
Pillischer says that the traditional way such things have happened has been through the public making it happen. In today’s current protest-friendly climate, and the echoes of the Civil Rights movement showing what good crowds can accomplish, it no longer seems impossible, especially in the kind of economic times where anyone could find themselves incarcerated just trying to survive.
“We’re probably only really going to start to see some of these major reforms if a real social movement puts some pressure on politicians and courts to enact some of these things,” he said.
November 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
More a meditative and philosophical poem than a documentary, Payback is the film adaptation of author Margaret Atwood’s non-fiction book, “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.” The title might make it seem like it’s about finances, but that’s only marginally the topic. It’s best described as being about the symbolism of finances as the measuring instrument of equality, of finances as the combustible spark to conflicts and punishment, of finances as one manifestation of owing something.
The book was a compilation a series of five lectures that Atwood gave in 2008 covering various aspects of fact-based historical and cultural examinations of the nature and practice of debt. For the film, director Jennifer Baichwal, the challenge is to mix segments of Atwood’s spoken pieces with stories that examine the manifestations of debt, both ethereal and tangible, into something that is less academic and more lyrical.
To this end, Baichwal juxtaposes several case studies in debt. The most mesmerizing is the tale of Albanian families feuding over property and, thanks to a 300-year-old tradition, causing more dysfunction and despair after a shooting and the call for reparations in the incident.
Also included by Baichwal is an examination of slavery amongst Florida tomato-harvesters and the way that British Petroleum turns their debt for the Gulf oil spill into a further swindle, as well as some personal asides, including a very affecting portrait of an ex-addict who must face the psychological damage his crimes have inflicted on one of his victims.
At root, there is no final eureka about the nature of debt, about the need to demand it between humans or about whether the symbolic manifestations meant to fulfill our need for vengeance or compensation really do, except for the suggestion that it may not be a valuable form of change in the world.
What is apparent is that payback is, as the saying goes, a bitch, but not exactly in the way the saying means it. Payback’s a bitch because it’s so complicated, sometimes unfair even to both parties and often terribly unsatisfying to the point that the problem it’s meant to render solved is very often extended, and painfully so.
October 26, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In the new documentary film, “Circus Dreams,” the old idea of running away with the circus is updated and revealed as not only a legitimate career move for kids, but an enriching one.
Circus Smirkus is a youth circus program that offers intensive training camps and touring for kids who are seriously interested in circus performance. The organization, based in Vermont, has existed since 1987, and offers big top shows with a cast ranging from ages 10 to 18.
Director Signe Taylor first encountered the group at a performance in Boston in 2003. She was producing guest spots for the television show “Zoom” at the time and thought Circus Smirkus would make a great three-minute piece. That segment never happened, but the idea stayed with her and, when she found herself relocated to Vermont in 2006 and having the desire to finally pursue her dream of creating independent documentary films, Circus Smirkus was the first thing she thought of.
“I approached them in early 2006 and that was the point that I learned that they had actually suspended operations the previous year,” she said. “I hadn’t realized that. At first, I was like, ‘Oh, no, this is bad,’ and then all of a sudden I was like, ‘Oh, no, this actually a pretty good dramatic hook, as long as it works.’ “
It wasn’t the sort of project that she could just pop in and pop out with her camera and expect to maintain a level of in timacy with her subjects, so Taylor brought her family and camera person to live with the circus.
“We cashed in my teacher retirement fund — I taught high school for 10 years — and we bought an RV and I went on tour,” Taylor said. “My husband went with me, at the beginning, and my two kids. We also had an au pair with us and my camera woman was driving our old Saab with a pop-up behind.”
“In the beginning, there was a little bit of distrust, a little bit of discomfort. Anytime you bring a camera into a room, it’s going to create anxiety, but then because — for the kids in that 2006 troupe — I just became part of their summer, like the cook or the counselor, like the tent crew, then there’s the film crew.”
As Taylor filmed their lives unfolding over the several months of Smirkus Camp and Big Top Tour, she found not only a fascinating story to be told, but also a kinship with her subjects that extends to many in the film’s audience.
“I think that it’s a very joyful summer, it’s a very extraordinary summer, but it’s not an easy summer by any means,” she said. “Everybody who’s there does a lot to get there. In some ways, as a documentary filmmaker, I didn’t choose an easy route, so I could relate to the kids and the whole circus ethos of ‘Can you juggle four balls? Well go try juggling five.’ You just keep pushing yourself and you want to do the best you can, and not because anybody’s going to reward you, but because you just want to achieve the best that you can achieve for yourself.”
Taylor completed the film in 2009, but felt it wasn’t all it could be. She ended up re-editing the film and structuring it from the point of view of Joy Powers, a girl clown with aspirations to turn the male-dominated world of clowning on its ear, alongside her partner in clowning, Maddy Hall.
Taylor edited in dialogue from 50 hours of interviews with Powers in order to shape it all into a narrative that not only guided viewers through the events of the training and tour, but also the minds of the kids experiencing it.
Many of the kids in the film present themselves, in context of their lives outside the circus, as the weird kid. There is a level to which you don’t have to be a circus kid to identify with that — any creative person could — but it also speaks to a cliché that might be etched in reality. The old idea of someone running away with the circus almost always has to do with the young person who isn’t like anyone else, the oddball with big dreams, and many of the participants in Circus Smirkus really are the spiritual and even actual descendants of this archetype.
“Most of the things in circus are really simple,” Taylor said. “It’s like a string that could be hanging from the top of a barn. It’s balancing on a tightrope, which could be walking along a fence. It can be performed as a very high tech art form, like Cirque de Soleil, but the basics of circus, it’s a swing, a trapeze is just a swing, and I think those kids are still the same.”
“It’s the dare-devil kids who walked along the roof line. A lot of kids talk about how their grandfathers, there would be pictures of them doing dare-devil stunts. I think it’s still the same on so many fronts.”
Taylor points to unicyclist Taylor Wright-Sanson, who is featured in the film, as giving her one of the clearest depictions of what it’s like to be a circus kid out in the real world and how that becomes part of a mission to find your own family.
“He said, ‘These are my people,’” she said. “At home, he spends all afternoon trying to figure out how to do different things on his unicycle, like day af ter day after day, and most of his friends don’t really do that and don’t really want to do that.”
“When you get to the circus, no matter what you’re particular passion is, whether it’s being able to contort yourself into a pretzel shape or to go as high as you can in the air and do a triple split extension, or juggle five clubs, they’re all very driven to succeed at what they want to do. It’s not necessarily like a normal thing, so then they become their own little tribe.”
Taylor realizes that the perception of circus has changed recently, after years of being relegated to the background of popular culture and entertainment. Thanks to modern circus organization, most notably Cirque de Soleil, kids are once again accessing the circus as a normal form of amusement.
“When I was in high school, circus was nothing,” said Tay lor. “Ringling maybe came once a year, but it had no ap peal. Because you can see Cirque online, circus plays a bigger role in youth culture for the kids now than it has probably in a couple of generations.”
“A lot of times for kids in the circus, they see the circus once and say, ‘That’s what I want.’ For most people it really doesn’t strike them that way. They may think of it as a fun entertainment.”
The impression sticks with many of the Smirkus participants after their involvement with it is done. Taylor says that half of the troupe from the year she filmed is either in a professional circus training program or professionally performing in circus, including narrator Joy Powers, who has toured with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey and is part of the clown troupe, the Piccolini Trio. One member from that year now performs with the pre miere group Seven Fingers (Les Sept doigts de la main) and another in the Cirque de Soleil show in Las Vegas, “KA.” Several more at tend École Nationale De Cirque in Montreal and have formed their own touring circus troupe.
“They’re pretty driven kids,” Taylor said. “This is their dream. They’re lucky in a certain sense. For most of those kids, circus is their dream and they’re being given the glorious chance to pursue their dream but then along with that comes the desire to really achieve that dream.”
Taylor has a newfound appreciation for circus, thanks to her experience, but her next film, which she is currently editing, is called “Telling My Story,” a documentary about a Dartmouth College class that takes students to a local jail, where they work with incarcerated women to write and perform a play.
Taylor’s summer of running away with the circus is behind her, but the kinship she feels with the troupe is not.
“When circus speaks to you, it really speaks to you,” she said. “I love it now and get a total kick out of it, but it’s not my dream. Documentary filmmaking is my passion and dream. For these kids, circus is what makes them tick.”